November 2023

The Price of Salt (Carol)

— The Price of Salt, still astonishes the reader with the subtle impact of love at first sight, a love that cannot be forgotten, even when all the laws of society seem stacked against it.
The Price of Salt (Carol)
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Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), was an American author known for her critically acclaimed, psychologically astute, and morally obscure and intense writing. Her most famous novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, were made into films. Strangers on a Train, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, 1951, is a study of how a warped mind can control a murderous narrative. The Talented Mr. Ripley, a study of a sociopath’s descent into murder and flipped identity, was made twice. Once in 1999, with Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law and the most excellent version Plein du Soleil or Purple Noon, in 1960, in French, starring Alain Delon.

Highsmith was a difficult personality, predominantly lesbian and yet at times bi-sexual and prone to addictions. She grew up in Greenwich Village in New York but spent time in Texas with relatives. She had a troubled relationship with her mother and step-father, which might have shaped the darkness of her writing.

In 1952, Highsmith, using an alias, Claire Morgan, wrote The Price of Salt, one of the first lesbian novels with a happy ending. Also, one of the first lesbian novels to achieve great success, The Price of Salt, later republished as Carol, has sold over one million copies. Highsmith, endured some censure from publishers, as they suggested she was “committing literary suicide,” to follow a successful thriller with a lesbian themed novel. Hence, the alias.

The Price of Salt is semi-autobiographical, as Highsmith worked in a department store during a holiday season.  The protagonists, Therese, 21, young, and inexperienced, and Carol, 32, rich, married, and with a child, meet in a store. Their intense and explosive love affair, destroys former relationships and causes Carol to almost lose any contact with her young daughter.  This is the ‘50’s, no LGBTQ awareness, rights or acceptance. Love between two people of the same sex, is called an abomination in courts and in churches. This novel sensitively and without sentimental drama shows how people suffered in the last century in an attempt to be their true selves.

Therese and Carol take a road trip. They wander from the east coast to the west coast, stopping in Chicago, with time to see the stockyards and the el, staying at the fancy Drake Hotel. They drink cocktails, they eat well.

In Waterloo, Iowa, they consummate their love, without knowing a private detective is following them and recording their intimacy. Disaster follows. Will the lovers be split up forever or will personal choices bring them together again?

A delicate, gentle love story, full of nuance, The Price of Salt makes us aware of the problems and prejudices that LGBTQ people had to endure in the past and even now as right- wing conservative politics attempt to erase diversity.

What makes this novel even more astonishing is the difficult personality of the writer. An alcoholic, prone to vigorous insults of friends and foes, Highsmith was also overtly anti-Semitic. While her personality and personal beliefs were often deplorable, her writing is not. How can a writer who shows the dark side of killers and psychopaths be able to portray a Romeo and Juliet style love between two women of disparate backgrounds? This is talent and genius at its finest.

Today, The Price of Salt, still astonishes the reader with the subtle impact of love at first sight, a love that cannot be forgotten, even when all the laws of society seem stacked against it. There are numerous authors today writing LGBTQ fiction. Women loving women books are plentiful and there are independent publishing houses that exclusively publish WLW fiction, such as Bold Strokes Books, Bella, and Yvla. We are not shocked now, but back in 1952, an author had to protect her name by using an alias and by searching out a publisher and editor who would take the risk of promoting a controversial story.

One of the first lesbian novels, The Well of Loneliness, written by Radclyffe Hall in 1928, was a groundbreaking work. The masculine lesbian in the novel, Stephen Gordon, identifies herself as an “invert,” a vintage term for those who are not at peace with their sexual natures as society dictated at the time. The book, while not sexually explicit, still was the subject of an obscenity trial. The United States allowed it to be published after a long court battle. The courts abhorred any deviation from the Christian “norm” that permeated society. 

Although The Price of Salt did not incur court cases like The Well of Loneliness it fell in and out of print for thirty years. In 1983 the lesbian publishing house Naiad Press, offered Highsmith $5,000 to reprint the novel under a new title Carol, and with her real name. The book continues to sell copies, especially after the film Carol was made in 2015, with Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara. 

Our favourite quote from The Price of Salt (Carol)

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.

A chance encounter between two lonely women leads to a passionate romance in this lesbian cult classic. Therese, a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce, abandon their oppressive daily routines for the freedom of the open road, where their love can blossom. But their newly discovered bliss is shattered when Carol is forced to choose between her child and her lover.

Author Patricia Highsmith is best known for her psychological thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Originally published in 1952 under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt was heralded as "the novel of a love society forbids." Highsmith's sensitive treatment of fully realized characters who defy stereotypes about homosexuality marks a departure from previous lesbian pulp fiction. Erotic, eloquent, and suspenseful, this story offers an honest look at the necessity of being true to one's nature. The book is also the basis of the acclaimed 2015 film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

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The Price of Salt is worth reading either before or after other Highsmith works. Her short stories are also amazing tales of people struggling or exalting in being different. The Price of Salt raises to a new level the intensity of a prohibited love affair. The ending will not disappoint.

Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.